The final section of Part 2 looks at the six necessary steps to eradicate Western society’s docilian mindset (the demand from a risk-averse population to remove any hazards via a systemic application of the precautionary principle). This precautionary risk management approach failed miserably to protect vulnerable populations from the devastating consequences of the COVID-19 coronavirus. If there had been a proper risk management culture in the West, many measures to reduce the risks of the coronavirus would have been taken in the early months of 2020 to lessen the impact, protect vulnerable populations and eliminate the need to lockdown entire populations. The precautionary principle, which could only offer the cut and run, ban and prohibit options of a last-minute lockdown, was proven to not be an appropriate tool for risk management.
Before looking at the blueprint for a risk management strategy fit for the 21st century, we need to consider what we have learnt from the policy failure of the COVID-19 crisis. With weak risk managers, without real leadership, we fell into a policy vacuum where activist groups were leading initiatives demanding that they, as citizen panels, be put in power. We need a docilian detox to relearn risk management.
This docilian detox will involve six steps (realisations):
- Risk managers were asleep at the wheel relying only on precaution as a policy tool. We had better wake up and rebuild risk management.
- Authorities need to deliver what their public needs rather than what they perceive is wanted.
- There is no such thing as zero risk and consequences of precautionary decisions matter.
- Personal risk management skills need to be redeveloped.
- Scientific expertise must be restored at the top of the risk management process.
- This is a trust issue. Public trust needs to be rebuilt in knowledge and expertise.
1. Pay Attention to the Wake-up Call
As our confused and reactive responses to the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis flattens economies and leaves a trail of social devastation, we can conclude that the Western risk management process has largely failed. There was no risk management strategy and their policy tool, precaution, was only able to implement one response: lockdown.
The lockdowns of large populations were merely to protect the poorly prepared healthcare services and buy time (to flatten the curve) for herd immunity to work its way through the population. This was not risk management but a result of no proper strategy in the months prior to losing control of the outbreak. It will end badly.
As the consequences are biting, economies are tanking and social benefits collapsing, expecting the public to continue to be docile and receptive will be a harder sell. Watching our parents die alone, nursing homes left undefended, the vulnerable with special needs being left to suffer in isolation, domestic violence incidences skyrocketing, mental health issues and suicide distress calls going unanswered and poverty imposed on the weakest as our economic system collapses… is evidence enough that our risk managers were asleep at the wheel. Worse, in developing countries where lockdowns are an opportunity to clear out the slums and the undocumented … the corpses there won’t even be counted.
So in reaction to the horrors they have wilfully unleashed on their populations, now some risk managers are prematurely lifting the lockdowns – the stupid leading the blind. As supply chains buckle, crops fail and food hoarding increases, regional famines (from earlier ag-tech precautionary debacles) will define the next stage of this global policy disaster. This failure should be enough of a wake-up call to return to the art of risk management, but as I write this, our lame leaders are meeting to map out the greener Post-COVID-19 world: more precautionary, more vulnerable, less prosperous.
Where is the courage to stop them? Who will prevent this from happening again?
2. Stop Leading from Behind
The last section asked a simple question (one considered since Plato’s Republic): Should our leaders (our risk managers) deliver what they perceive the public demands or should they deliver what is necessary to protect them? Docilians expect their leaders to deliver zero risk on what they have been made to be be afraid of; they are not too terribly concerned about any consequences.
If the public wants (conventional) pesticide-free food, should the regulators deliver it? If the public demands an end to nuclear energy, should the risk manager fire up the coal plants? What if a majority of the public, as it seems to be trending in some regions, demands an end to vaccination programmes? While regulators attempt to communicate the values of public health and common sense, they have their legitimacy to consider and must take (what they perceive to be) the public interest into consideration. Risk-averse docilians were the ones making the precautionary demands our risk managers felt compelled to deliver.
Science, in this world, has to bow to the demands of an outraged public first and address the world of facts and evidence only later (if at all). See an interesting exchange I had on this subject last year on a panel with the head of the European Commission Pesticides Unit and a former EFSA director on the risks of bending science to the democratic will (from the 51 minute mark).
Risk managers should be concerned, first and foremost, about the consequences of their decisions: what are they doing to protect populations? What benefits and social goods do they risk giving up? But over the last two decades, with the participatory process of stakeholder engagement and consensus-building, risk managers concentrated more on delivering what was wanted rather than what was needed.
And what the loudest activist voices wanted was a zero-risk world where any and all hazards were simply taken away. Precaution became the policy tool of choice. Our risk managers forgot how to protect the public from real risks.
3. Accept there is no Risk-free
The London Marathon was supposed to be held today. On BBC News, Sebastian Coe claimed the event could only be held in October if it could be guaranteed to be “entirely safe”. When has a marathon ever been “entirely safe”?
So in a risk-averse world, our policymakers merely used precaution to ban or prohibit anything with a whiff of hazard that the docilian herd demanded.
- If there is any possibility of cancer from minuscule traces of a widely used herbicide, then we will have to let the weeds grow
(sorry for the farmers).
- If it is impossible to guarantee that German nuclear reactors could withstand the force of a 30m high tsunami wave, then 25% of the nation’s energy would have to be cut
(sorry for the working poor or CO2 emissions).
And then these possibilists grew even more absurd.
- Is it not impossible that a useful plastic could be excluded from having potential endocrine disrupting properties?
Then ban it!
- Is there the slightest risk that a food stabiliser might cause a tumour in mice?
Let the food rot.
Precaution was the tool risk managers used to deliver the docilian’s risk-free world – there was no effort to reduce exposures (manage risks). The precaution antidote is to merely take anything hazardous away to prevent contact.
But how did precaution fare in protecting populations from a global coronavirus pandemic? The zero-risk game doesn’t apply here. Any death is tragic, but trying to prevent any risk to entire populations via lockdowns (without any other risk management measures), not only failed to protect the most vulnerable, it has led to unthinkable consequences. Banning a pesticide or a plastic in an affluent society can be overlooked or replaced with costly alternatives, but banning all movement, trade and social interaction is something else.
Bjørn Lomborg recently put this madness into context. “If you want to save everyone who dies in traffic, you should just take it (the speed limit) down to 5km per hour. Nobody would die. But of course the point is you don’t want to do that because it also has huge social ramifications.” Globally around 4000 people die every day from car accidents. That number is down significantly due to risk management measures (car safety innovations, road risk reductions, better education and monitoring…). You don’t go nuclear and strangle all benefits with precaution before first trying to manage the risks.
The Nuclear Option
The precautionary lockdowns were the first and only risk management response to COVID-19 in the West, and it was nuclear.
We need to accept that COVID-19 is a tragedy and many people will die before their time. We have to make decisions to manage this so that the tragic consequences are as low as reasonably achievable (ALARA). Consider a basic calculation (although the math may change with further data). For every reported American death from COVID-19, around 500 Americans have lost their jobs. Now using a “Pittsburgh calculation” from the 1980s steel mill closures, how many of those 500 will die from mental health issues or domestic violence? How many will have shortened lifespans (DALYs) due to alcoholism and substance abuse? How many of these unemployed without healthcare will have diseases go undetected? How many of these 500 victims were members of service clubs or donated to charities to help people with disabilities? How will the societal revenue decline affect research and innovation into lifesaving drugs? How many will be homeless when the next lockdown is imposed?
A proper risk management process would consider these factors and likely conclude that 500 is too high of a consequence and seek more reasonably achievable risk reduction measures than jumping directly to the nuclear option. Our present risk managers, after doing nothing for ten weeks, used precaution to try to control the virus with a massive lockdown … they did not consider any other consequences. Are they capable of managing the risks of the coronahunger? What about the consequences of the financial reckoning? Heaven help us if we don’t reject these risk-averse precautionistas and fix this mess.
Shut up Mr Monger!
This is usually the place where my trolls will come at me, accusing me of heartless hypocrisy claiming that: “The Risk-Monger doesn’t care about public health and is merely a mouthpiece for industry, happy to poison innocent children with chemicals, toxic waste and Frankenseeds. And now he wants to stop the lockdowns and let the vulnerable die so corporations can profit, poison and pollute.“
Well … No!
Casa Monger is locked down and will be through the summer. I am high risk, not only with heart disease but also with very low immunity levels following an 18-month battle with an organ infection. Mrs Monger has pulmonary disease … we joke that her most recent attack in November makes her “patient zero” for COVID-19.
But who are we to demand that society goes over a cliff to guarantee our safety? What sort of professor would I be to tolerate five students committing suicide so that I might enjoy another ten years of life?
At the end of January when it was clear things were going to get bad, we started to prepare our firewalls. I began working hard to improve my immunity levels and Mrs Monger got on the treadmill.
A docilian detox entails that individuals need to understand they are the ones responsible for their health and well-being. The world does not exist to take care of them.
4. Managing Risks is Everyone’s Responsibility
Over the last two decades, regulators have become more paternalistic as the field of policy management became a “diplomaed” profession rather than a professional service. Generalists came out of swanky universities and into public service to solve the citizen’s problems. People could no longer be trusted to manage personal risks as these zealous civil servants set out to deliver absolute safety, remove potential hazards and provide systemic certainty. This was unrealistic and, quite frankly, dangerous as individuals become coddled, docile and receptive.
Risk management as a profession and a field of study was born in the 1990s but we have always been managing our own risks. The belief that someone else will take care of micro-managing our safety is a luxury our once affluent societies can no longer afford. The Nanny State is not a modern concept (zealots have been around for as long as societies have congregated – remember the great American precautionary fail of Prohibition?) but the continual march towards zero risk has left humanity feeling over-secure and under-prepared.
This “docilian series” was meant to show how we have lost the capacity to manage risks, have built the false belief that we could live risk-free and have blindly imposed that misconception upon those around us. Individuals need to relearn risk management and the coronavirus has thrust that necessary task upon the individuals in real time.
Some have struggled with such responsibilities. When one particularly confused risk manager recently suggested drinking bleach to prevent the coronavirus, US poison control centres saw an increase in calls. Others lacking trust in authorities embraced conspiracy theories but in general, most people returned to the trusted sources prior to the docilian decade: scientists.
5. Going Back to Science
When matters of life or death depend on you getting good evidence, the gurus and the activists were no match for the expert authorities, healthcare providers and scientists. People stopped following their gurus, started listening to scientists and tuning in to the mainstream media (no longer considered “fake news”). It seems that each country has a number of scientists who have become household names, answering public concerns with evidence and authority. Yes, in 2020, some scientists now even have fan clubs.
Pharmaceutical companies, for years villainised on Netflix and serving as the source of evil for naturopath gurus, now hold the key to solving our COVID-19 living hell. Large chemical companies are ramping up production of their disinfectants and sanitisers. Social media companies are cracking down on woo-peddlers, putting warning labels on their pages, banning their supplement sales and shutting the worst offenders down. The detox has begun.
Groups marching against industry and technology, those claiming to represent “the 99%”, were dumbfounded when the vast majority did not follow them down their latest rabbit holes. The naturopaths were master manipulators speaking loudly for a very small part of the population while everyone else was too busy just trying to get by. Extinction Rebellion’s founder, Roger Hallam, postulated how he could overthrow the state with the support of just 3.5% of the population. How hollow and deceptive these these tinpot tyrants turned out to be. The mainstream were not interested in paying more for food and electricity, trusted conventional agriculture and wanted more innovative technologies. They just didn’t have large twitter followings.
So while activists were spending vast sums to get actors to read from scripts, manufacturing outrage for the large foundations and trusts who donate, and the risk managers listened to them intently, the main population struggled through their days … until the lockdowns got them to speak up. The public went back to the science and the activists were locked out.
6. Rebuilding Trust
I was recently asked about leadership in the time of COVID-19 and my response was perhaps somewhat surprising. Previously leaders invoked God, powerful armies, fear of enemies or great knowledge to lead their people. But these elements no longer provide the power for leaders to be legitimate. Today power is in the hands of the trusted.
After two decades of continuous activist assault on Western institutions, eroding trust in industry, technology, science and expertise, trust was found only in people like us (sharing the same values in our social media tribes). We stay in Airbnb “hotels” or get into Ubers with strangers based on a series of ratings made by people like us. I refer to this as blockchain trust. In a social media-driven world where facts are agreed upon at the tribal level, trust is found not in the expert or the leader but a series of peers watching everyone else.
This is worrying as activists were pushing this approach to the level of governance – to replace leadership and government expertise with citizen panels (effectively well-placed activists aiming to impose their will on a generally indifferent public). The pronouncements of Macron’s recent Citizens’ Climate Convention in France were elitist, urban and single-minded. If taken seriously, France would destroy itself with such totalitarian diktats.
Our leadership has weakened into a collective of narcissistic tribal gurus. People like Trump, Bolsonaro, Duterte … do not lead nations but merely tweet to their base and without real leadership, this base of collectives merely pretends to represent a population. Such foolishness can be “tolerated” in times of peace and prosperity, but in times of a pandemic or economic collapse, we need a little more than jingoism, polarisation and vitriol. We’re left searching for someone legitimate to trust.
Rebuilding Trust in Science
COVID-19 was a reality check on the activist nonsense. Do we really want to be led by our unprofessional peers? If our lives depended on it, perhaps the views of a scientific expert in virology would have more validity than an online physiotherapist trying to sell me some supplements. Every family with that naturopath sister-in-law is now taking the time to stand up to her – the Rachels of the world are licking their wounds. The anti-vaxxers are still trying though to push their alt-med solutions, 5G conspiracy theories and Bill Gates smear campaigns, but any previous middle ground they were playing for has tuned out and social media has shut them down.
The attention paid to scientists, the overwhelming demand for a vaccine, the interest in pharmaceuticals to aid in coronavirus treatment and the openness to new technologies is reassuring. Two decades of assaults on institutions, science and technology did not achieve the loss in trust the activists had intended. Risk management needs to be be rebuilt around expertise and evidence rather than gurus and peers.
Now comes the hard part. Part 3 looks at rebuilding risk management amid the ruins of the precautionary principle’s greatest global failure.